Friday, August 21, 2015

Keepers of Our Children's Hearts

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the hearts of our children. 
Our children are growing up faster than we realise!
It started when our then 2-and-a-half year old had trouble sleeping at night. This was sometime after Easter, and also after we had attended the funeral procession of Singapore's First Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew the week before. The boys had been exposed to the concept of death, and had had some ideas about the finality it involved, although I am sure their understanding was still at an early stage.

One night after a long week of bedtime struggles, I went into his room for what was probably the fourth time to pray for him. We asked God to send His angels to fill the room and to "tell any bad men to go away". In the darkness, I heard his little voice say, "Mummy, I am scared that the bad soldiers will come and put a crown of thorns on my head." I assured him that it would not be the case, that Jesus died once for us and we did not have to suffer the same death he did, and kissed him good night.

However, my mind was whirling when I went back to our bedroom. On one level, I found it rather amazing that little E had internalised the story to such an extent, but on another, I wondered if we had been exposing him to too much at his tender age, even though the story of the Cross was one we had wanted him to understand.

That was in April. We've since had a few more episodes of being afraid that "the bad men will come and take me away", but thankfully they have been few and far between. 
E spending precious moments reading with his Mama while on holiday. We have since then been mindful to read not-so-scary stories to him, especially before bedtime.
Our children are born with tender hearts. Their hearts have not been calloused like ours have, hardened towards sin and immorality, indifferent to suffering. It has been a reflective journey of watching our boys grow up; Their eyes gradually opening to the fact that this world is not all perfect and rosy, far from the safe and secure haven of their babyhood years.
Don't get me wrong. We do not aim to raise our children in an ivory tower, like Rapunzel, unaware of the goings on in the world beneath them. Not that we could even afford such a tower! We do not shy away from exposing them to the realities of life - a dead squirrel just run over by a car which their Kong Kong let them touch before rigor mortis set in; the fact that Jesus our Saviour suffered and died on the cross; the realities of poverty, suffering, aging, death.

We try our best to be present in their feelings, yes, even the negative ones, and to help them know that they are part of the human condition. Our boys are made aware of the natural disasters that happen around the world and pray for the people who are suffering a a result of them - the earthquakes in Nepal and Kota Kinabalu, the floods in a province of the Philippines where their beloved Aunty M (our helper) is from. 

Yet somehow there is a distinct difference between allowing our children to understand the realities of life as they grow (in an a manner respecting the stage of development they are at) and exposing them to others' subjective interpretations of what the realities of life are (and the reason people often give for this is that they want to prepare their children for the "real" world. But what is real?).
One of the constant thoughts in our minds as parents is how to prepare our children to be resilient and anchored in firm foundations, in a world which is so fickle and where nothing seems "real".
The reality is that very little can prepare us for the real world. As adults, we often find ourselves unprepared for the harsh realities of life; I wonder how we can expect a 3- or 5-year-old to be able to do the same? Not much can ever prepare us, that is, except a grounding and rootedness in one's foundations, and meaningful deep relationships that are built to last. And trust me, most of these will not be found in the latest The Hunger Games movie or Grand Theft Auto game, but are found within the comfort and stability of a family and the supportive networks which surround it.

Mark and I have discussed this issue at a few points since our younger son's sleepless episodes. We have realised that he is a boy with a big imagination and an even bigger heart. In fact, both of our boys have always had that intensity of emotion about them. We love it because it makes them giggle their hearts out when something tickles their funny bone. It is the same spiritedness that causes them to tear when they hear that someone is in pain. However, it is this very sensitivity which comes with fears that often overwhelm, because somehow they are more attune to the fact that this world is, indeed, not what is was meant by its Creator to be, and is in fact decaying by the day. 

We have resolved to make conscious decisions to expose their young hearts to whatever is true, noble, right, pure, holy and admirable. We take them out on nature walks to remind them of the beauty of Creation. We talk a lot about History and Geography and expose them to different cultures and languages because it is an amazing and diverse world out there. We choose excellent "living books" for them to read because we believe that books are our mentors and can change lives. We travel a lot, just because we love living life to the full! And we are embarking on Classical Conversations as a homeschool curriculum because we believe it will help us to do just that.
At the first Orientation Meeting of our new Classical Conversations community.
Breakfast, drawing and a nature walk with lots of squirrel spotting!
This also means that we will not do some things - we limit TV time to at the most one short DVD viewing a day; We allow them to watch a Youtube video of Gustav Holst's The Planets or Riverdance, but we will never let them randomly surf on Youtube. We are intentional in all of this no matter whose house our boys may be at. Studies show, for example, that early exposure to pornography is a key factor in later sexual promiscuity and broken relationships in marriage.

We put a lot of thought into what movies we show them - the number of movies our boys have watched can be counted on one hand, but they include classics like The Sound of Music and Jungle Book, as well as slightly more modern ones like Toy Story and Beauty and the Beast. We want our boys to understand some elements of pop culture, but not necessarily to embrace all of it.
One of the boys' all-time favourite Disney movies - Toy Story! The parents like it too...
And so it with much tenderness that we hold their little hearts in our hands, and a bit of trepidation that we watch them come face-to-face with the world in all its beauty and ugliness, and pray hard that the foundations we have been building in these early years will be a lifelong anchor to their souls.

One of their favourite stories at the moment is The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola. It is a beautiful tale in the heart of Sorrento, Italy, about a poor orphan child and his rise to fame  as a famous juggler, as well as his tragic end as he grows old and is no longer appreciated as in his younger days. Fame is fleeting. Giovanni eventually realises that whatever he puts his heart to brings glory to God when he does his one final act of juggling for the Christ child. One of our favourite lines in the book must be "If you give happiness to people, you bring glory to God as well."
This book has had a great impact on the hearts of our family. A reminder to do all things for the glory of God. In this photo, we were practising painting Roman columns and arches like the artist did.
I must admit, when I first read it to the boys, I myself did not anticipate the ending. My jaw dropped when I turned the page and read, "suddenly, his old heart stopped. And Giovanni fell dead to the floor". Uh oh, I thought. This is where the two of them break down sobbing, and I will regret ever having read this book to them. Not to mention the life of orphanhood, poverty, hunger, and hardship which their beloved Giovanni had had before that. 

Well, no crying ensued, but in the following days they were thoughtful, and kept turning to look at the page of the poor clown sprawled upon the floor, surrounded by his rainbow of juggling balls. 

"And he died?" they kept asking. "His heart stopped?" 

"Yes, he did, sweetheart," I would reply. "Giovanni was old. But he lived a good life, didn't he? And he made people laugh and brought glory to God." 

My two nod wisely, and I am reminded again of how as parents, we have been given the precious and priceless responsibility of being stewards and gatekeepers of their hearts. May we not be found wanting.
May we be faithful stewards of these little boys' hearts. Here they are with painted faces, like Giovanni the juggler.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Daddy Factor

I had two hours between appointments last Wednesday, so I decided to pop back home for a quick lunch and a short rest. Just as I had entered the room and was preparing to lie on the bed for a brief respite, I heard a little voice with a huge request.

“Daddy, I want to cook with you now.”

“Hi E. How was your day? You want to cook with me now?”


“E, Daddy’s tired. I just got back from work and I have to attend class soon. Can I cook with you tonight?”

“No. Now.”

“But E, Aunty M’s cooking lunch for us. She should be ready soon.”

“Only Daddy….. Please?”

And with that request, I yanked myself out of bed and into the kitchen, even though our domestic helper was in the midst of preparing her lunch of spaghetti bolognese. Our little 3-year-old had already taken his stool and was standing over the stove, peering into the contents of the frying pan.

“Here E. Take this ladle. I want you to watch what Daddy is doing and follow after me. OK?”

The young boy stole a glance at his Daddy and beamed. I felt I was the king of the world!
It is no secret that the younger son loves to cook. Here he is cooking with
his older brother, as Daddy supervises.
I have not always felt wanted as a father. Most of the time my two sons would say “I want Mummy!” Whether it is after a fall or whether they want a cup of milk before bedtime, they would always turn to their mother as the first line of help. And even if Daddy was around, the boys would still look for their Mummy to attend to them for the most basic of needs. In the deepest recesses of my heart, I had always felt jealous of my wife, and wished that my sons would look for me instead when they needed me. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was because I was too strict with them and that they only associated me with discipline and not tenderness and affection.

There have, however, been a number of instances lately when I realised that my sons are actually seeking my affections, and that they are looking up to me for guidance and affirmation. Our younger son, for instance, has been twirling his noodles “just like Daddy”. He has also been holding his fork and spoon, and using his knife to cut the food “just like Daddy”. Our older son had initially been having problems with dressing and clothes. But recently he surprised us by buttoning his shirt all by himself, and when Sue tried to help him, he turned her away, indicating that he wanted to do it by himself “just like Daddy”. Then this morning the older son pranced in front of me with the clothes that he had chosen and worn himself. “Are these "going out" clothes Daddy?” he asked. And he beamed the broadest of smiles when I said that they were, and that he looked wonderful in them.
All children long to be "just like their Daddy"; it begins from the clothes
they wear to the things they do. And it is essential that a father affirms
his children to provide the security that they need.
Attachment theory postulates that securely attached children will seek comfort from their primary caregiver (in most cases the mother) during the times when they experience discomfort or fear. This is as they know their mother will be there to provide the emotional support that they need. (I wrote a more detailed blog entry on attachment theory in a previous post.) In our case the above is most certainly true. Our sons do go to Sue to receive the hugging and kissing and emotional support that they need. This made me wonder whether I was too hard on the boys, and that perhaps the only association they had with me was that of discipline and strictness. But my recent experiences with my children have convinced me that it is not only the case - my sons also seem to associate their relationship with me in terms of the life skills that I teach them; from cooking and learning about music to fashion and how to button your shirt. These experiences concur with attachment theory, which suggests that children need an "alternative caregiver" to develop securely. That is where fathers come in; and I am glad that I am playing that role for them.
This picture encapsulates best the Daddy-Son relationship. The father
is seen here guiding the son and helping him navigate past
the obstacles of life.
I did not quite have such a privileged childhood. Following my parents' separation at the age of 3, I ambled for a good part of those growing up years without a father figure in my life. Thankfully my paternal grandfather took on that role, spending many hours with me at coffee shops and buying presents for me on a regular basis to make me smile. I will always remember how Grandpa used to buy a board game for me each week, leaving my Mama to play the game with me. These childhood memories bring a smile to my face; and I have realised that my grandfather's influence on me is stronger than I imagined - I know that my love of board games and my preference of coffee shops over food courts and restaurants is probably due to him. But it was only recently that I realised that without the presence of both my Grandpa and my Mama during my childhood, that I might not have developed as securely as I did. (I share more about my Grandpa and the role of grandparents in this post.)  
One of the most precious memories with my Grandpa - it is a powerful
symbolism that he stood by my side and supported me throughout
my childhood years and to my graduation from university.
It is so important to have a father figure in our life. I agree with the recent body of research that the presence of a father has a direct impact on a child's secure development. In fact, attachment theory attests to the importance of the "alternative caregiver" - the father. He completes the triad relationship of child, mother and father. While the mother is the "safe haven" for the child to find refuge and security, the father contributes in the area of exploration, modelling and play. This familial triad is not only important in early childhood, but all throughout the childhood years, and especially during the turbulent teenage years, when adolescents struggle with the confusion of identity formation and when they either establish a secure sense of self, or become swept away by the numerous voices of society as a collective.
The father completes the familial triad that comprises the child and the mother.
That is the building block of a family, which cements the child's sense of self
through emotional experiences such as memories.
I am thankful that despite the absence of a father figure in my life, that I was still able to develop in a healthy manner. In this light, I am thankful for the precious mentors whom God has placed in my life, and these special people have modelled to me what it means to live a life worth living. For instance I will always remember my dear friend Patrick, whom God brought into my life during my university years. As a mentor, Patrick modelling what it meant to have a strong marriage and family life. Then during the days when Sue and I were dating, we were blessed to have a lovely couple, Ben and Claire, who shared with us many valuable principles about relationships, marriage and parenting. And in recent years, we have had the privilege of a dear couple, Lawrence and Regina, who have mentored us in the area of parenting, finances and life in general.

As I write this blog entry, I am reminded that none of us fathers are perfect. Each of us has our own struggles even as we are faced with the various facets of parenting; not to mention our own internal childhood fears and concerns, which we bring with us into our marriages and into our parenting. Each of us wants to be the best father we can be; yet there are so many times when we look at the way we parent, and we feel so terrible  and inadequate about the way things turned out. We wish we could have done things differently; or we postulate that we would be a better parent if only we did things just like how this other person we know did them.

During my university years I was struggling with the concept of what it means to be a "father" - I had no one to model for me what a father should be, and as such I was very confused about this concept. What I learnt then was that there is only one perfect Father. And God is always there for us no matter how far we turn from Him. 
There is no perfect father; there is no perfect family. But this is what it could look like if God is the Head of the family.
The father turns to his 5-year-old son after a time of discipline.

"Z, do you know why I punished you? You know you were wrong?"

The young boy nods his head.

"Do you know I love you?"

He nods his head again.

"Do you know that I love you; and that's why I need to punish you when you do wrong?"

The child turns to his father, and nods his head yet again; even as the father takes his son into his arms and hugs him dearly.

We love because He first loved us.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Games for Young Children: Pengoloo, An Egg-Finding Memory Game (Review)

Over the course of the SG50 long weekend, our family found a new pastime. We have been spending our evenings before bedtime playing games - and no, not the iPad or Nintendo PS2 variety. 

It's been kind of a dream come true for their Daddy, who is a true blue board game geek, but who has recently had to sacrifice his great need for engaging in strategic battles with enemies from far-flung lands (his favourites being games like Axis and Allies). These days, a very tired wife and two young children will not likely be able to sit still for the duration of any game, much less a game of chess. (He was after all a competitive chess player during his school days!)
Daddy Mark is hopeful - the beginnings of teaching the kids how to play chess?
Our online store Sensational Play has recently brought in a whole range of Blue Orange Games. Founded in San Francisco, the Blue Orange range consists of award-winning products of exceptionally high quality and play value. 

We were excited to bring in their range for younger children - Froggy Boogie, Zimbbos and Pengoloo. I have always wanted to introduce our boys to games at an early age because I find that children can learn so much from the turn-taking, focus and attention, as well as strategic and logical thinking that can be found in a board game session. However, I was apprehensive about whether our rambunctious two would be able to follow the rules and not bicker about whose turn it was along the way.

We started off with Pengoloo because it was the least complex in terms of the dynamics involved. And of course, the cute penguins with their shiny orange beaks and jellybean eggs were irresistible. 
Who can resist these cute parent penguins which come with their brightly coloured eggs?
Blue Orange Games pride themselves on quality. Each game comes with made-to-last wooden pieces, wrapped beautifully in a box.
The object of the game is simple - to roll two dice and look for matching coloured eggs which sit beneath the penguins. The rules are easy enough for a child of 2 years and up to understand - roll the two dice, look under the penguins, and if the colours of the eggs match  the colours of your dice, you get to keep the penguin. The winner is the one with the most penguins at the end of the game.
Our 3 yo looks on in anticipation. Which penguin should I choose?
Which coloured egg is hiding under this penguin?
The premise sounds simple and it really does make for an easy game play - but that it precisely what one would look for in a game for children between the ages of 2 and up; predictability, some level of challenge in terms of remembering which egg is under which penguin, and a whole lot of fun imagining you're in the South Pole with your penguin friends.
Children learn colour matching and build their memory skills at the same time.
The verdict? This game has become a fast favourite in our family game time. We have realised through it that the family member with the best memory skills is our 5-year-old son, Z. Our 3-year-old may not always make the effort to remember which egg is under which penguin, but it has been wonderful seeing him gradually understand the game dynamics, and his focus and attention span are also being built upon as he waits for his turn.

There is always the added element of learning to win/ lose, and we have been very glad to see that although Z expresses his desire to win each game, he is able to accept the fact that one of us has won instead when it happens.

All in all, we are pleased with Pengoloo. The quality wooden pieces make it a game that will last, and I can foresee many more happy game nights ahead spent playing the game with our faithful black and white friends.

Pengoloo can be purchased from our online store Sensational Play through this link.
Guess who has the most penguins? The one with the best memory :)
Good night, penguins. Time for bed, until we take you out again for another round of Pengoloo!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Making Memories: The Quest for a Fulfilling Childhood

Our two boys turned 5 and 3 last week; and they had a whale of a time! It all began two weeks ago when we had a simple birthday party with the boys' good friends. It was a lovely evening which started with a time in the pool, a dinner, a cake-cutting ceremony, and then a night playing with punch balls under the stars. The boys were in good spirits the whole evening, and talked about the event for days after it ended.
Our two happy children beaming in bliss during the cake-cutting ceremony.
Then there were the presents. Sue and I have been rationing them and getting the boys to open them one or two at a time each day. We have been blessed by the thoughtfulness of the givers, with interesting items such as Mr Potato Head figures, toy soldiers, Chinese books, finger paints, a Lego space shuttle and mechanised puppies - all the boys' current favourites!

This is also the first time that the boys are old enough to decide what they want to do for their birthdays. Our second son E asked for the simple treat of eating French fries and iced lemon tea at the nearby coffee shop; so that was what we did on his actual birthday - except that it was Texas Fried Chicken at Gardens by the Bay; a location that the older son Z requested for. His was a request to enjoy the supertree show there, with its glorious magical lights, all moving in synchrony to the music of favourite tunes such as "Under the Sea" and "A Whole New World".
Morning breakfast with the second son. Knowing that E loves to cook with Daddy,
I decided to spend the morning letting him cook an egg under my supervision.
The 3-year-old enjoying a bubblin' good time just before the supertree show.
Fried chicken and French Fries - the request of the birthday boy.
For Z's actual birthday, we headed to his favourite Prata Shop to eat his choice of "spicy rice" (known more popularly as Nasi Biryani). It was then a time of rest at home before an evening celebration with his grandaunts.
Although he didn't eat "spicy rice" in the end, our 5-year-old was so
pleased that he got to eat his "bread with spicy curry".
Birthdays are special days for children. Sue wrote a post on the meaning of birthdays last year, where she shared how important it is to cherish every moment of a child's life. For me, a birthday is an important occasion to create a lovely memory for a child. I remember my own birthdays with fondness. There was once when my mother prepared an entire black and white chequered cake for me, and then put my chess pieces on it - a real treat for a chess enthusiast. Then there was the time when I had a "magic" party, and my friends all received invitations in "magic ink", and they had to heat the letters under a toaster so that the lemon juice words would materialise. 

Childhood is shaped by the memories created by one's parents - whether these are intentional or not. For me, I know my childhood will always be clouded by my parents' separation and eventual divorce. An earlier post I wrote about childhood describes how things in the past can be blurred or distorted if they were not fully "seen". This explains how a child's memories are so strongly related to the intentional actions of parents. There are, however, the unintentional actions of parents - instances such as separation or divorce. 

During this year I have been pursuing a postgraduate programme in counselling and much of the course has been a reflection of my own childhood and aspects of personhood. This is an extract from my final paper for the Human Development module, which required a consideration of different views on personhood e.g. from the physical, emotional, spiritual, developmental and family perspectives.

"Family systems have a major impact on the nature of a person. One especially pertinent theory has been [Mary] Ainsworth’s “strange situation” concept as articulated in attachment theory. [Ainsworth's research showed that children who are more securely attached to the mother tend to be more comfortable with a strange or new situation when she is around. The children become more distressed and explore less if the mother is not around.]

As a result, close family systems tend to help a person to develop a stronger sense of identity and self worth; and a family system whose members are not securely attached to one another might result in persons who become less secure and confident in life. A person is therefore shaped by his or her family; and familial influence plays a major role in terms of defining an individual’s concept of personhood."

We are most comfortable when we are with the people closest to us - our family. Much of who we are results from our family background and culture. If we have had happy memories with our parents, it is more likely that we will want to take these memories with us as we parent our children. That's how family traditions are created and established. Conversely, if we have had sad memories in our childhood, we are more likely to want to forget them, or not to include these past practices into our present-day parenting.
Getting their feet wet at the mouth of the Margaret River. That's the stuff childhood memories are made up of...
Adventures in Mammoth Cave, Perth. The time that a family spends together
during a holiday is priceless, and children remember these memories long after
the experience is over.
We need to intentionally choose to build into our relationships with our children. I believe this is best done through the creation of lasting childhood memories, experiences that our children will remember for many more years to come - and some of these experiences will serve as defining moments for our children, shaping the person they will become. A case in point was one of my students Carol, who spent two years on board a round-the-world missionary vessel, the Doulos, stopping at various ports along the way. She shared how much her life had been impacted by her adventures around the world. My student now wants to become a writer, and her experiences on board the ship have defined much of the person she is, and the person she wants to be.

"Daddy, when are we next going to a bouncy bed?" asks the 5-year-old with a look of wonder in his eyes. (The children both love travelling and they refer to hotels as "bouncy beds" for the only reason they believe that beds are made for.)

"Well, Z, bouncy beds cost money. Daddy has to work very hard to earn money so we can go to another bouncy bed."

The 5-year-old nods his head wisely. "So we can have money to go on an aeroplane?" 

"Yes Z. Daddy has to work hard to earn money so we can go on an aeroplane and have an adventure together."

"OK, Daddy." The little boy heads to the living room and returns holding his little piggy bank in his hands. "Daddy, you can have this. So can we go soon?"

The father looks at his little boy with a deep love in his heart, hugging him tenderly. "Z, Daddy will do everything I can so that we will always have adventures together as a family ok?"

And the little boy nods.